Apart from having my 4 children, completing my first Ironman race was the toughest physical and mental activity that I had ever accomplished. Ironman is a defining life event - existence before and after is not the same: it changes you, transforms you. I've done over 60 endurance races and have placed top 3 in my age group or overall in most of them. With Ironman, it's not about placing or winning, as that is not possible for me right now at this distance at this time. What is possible is for me to bring my best to the table, focus through it all, release the self-doubt, judgment and pain from my mind and hopefully achieve a new level of completeness.
On this note, I was determined to not repeat at the previous ‘mistakes’ I made with my first Ironman. The theme of this race report will be how to train for an Ironman in 13 weeks and avoid common, yet popular, mistakes before, during and after an Ironman. Of course, I do recognize that I may not be your average Ironman participant: I am a competitive triathlete, certified USA Triathlon coach and personal trainer and with a strong existing endurance base plus lots of triathlon race experience. That being said, I have a lot of advice which I want to impart on the triathlon community and anyone else who wants to listen to me. :-)
In this life, all of the best made plans are subject to the realities of life. I registered for Ironman Vineman in November 2015 after it was announced that IRONMAN organization bought the race from the previous legacy race company. Given the proximity to the Bay Area and my familiarity with the course, having done the 2010, 2011 and 2015 aquabikes races and several training bike rides on the course, I knew it would be a great venue for my second Ironman experience. As in most winters, my training program objectives turn towards running and strength. I picked up the running in preparation for the Kaiser Half Marathon on February 14.
After years of believing that I would ‘start’ strength training again when I could find an extra hour of devoted time to it - I realized that it was never going to happen if I keep waiting for that ‘hour’ to appear. Instead, I opted to hit the weight room at Bay Club after either a swim or run and do upper body (biceps, triceps, shoulders) and core. This worked really well for me - since I am a cardio endurance junkie and can’t stand the idea of not working cardio on any workout day.
As interesting timing would have it, I was promoted to Vice President at work and launched into a global tour over the first six month of 2016, traveling to Beijing, Las Vegas, New York City, Boston, London, Stockholm, San Francisco, Hangzhou and Paris. While absolutely amazing, all training plans were thrown out the window. Other than Beijing, where I had access to a nice lap pool at the Crowne Plaza, running was my only mode of exercise on these trips. That probably wasn’t a bad thing given that it gave me a great opportunity to prioritize running, which had always been my least favorite choice out of the 3 triathlon disciplines. I also developed a love for ‘run-seeing’ - like run sightseeing, where you experience the area through running.
In April, I kicked off the 2016 triathlon with HITS Napa Valley Olympic Triathlon, placing 2nd overall and Half Moon Bay Olympic Triathlon, placing 3rd in Age Group. My running had improved dramatically compared to 2015 season. Fast forward to the last week of April, with Ironman Vineman only 3 months out, I had serious doubts about participating. My bike and run milage was ‘non-existent’ compared to a typical IMers around the 3 month out mark. I told my co-worker upon landing back in Beijing that I probably wasn’t going to do the race - as there would only be 13 weeks remaining by the time I got back home from this trip to China. After some more thought, I recommitted to the race on the second day in Beijing. I have never backed out of a race, I didn’t want to start now. I knew the race would give me something to #hyperfocus on - which is definitely one of my strengths. I was determined. I decided that in order to complete Ironman successfully, I would need to build up enough to be able to bike for 6 hours and run for 4 hours - those were the 2 training goals. Swimming would take care of itself and in fact, in order to ramp up bike and run, I would have to cut back on swimming - from 3 times a week, down to 2 or 1 or sometimes none, like when I was traveling.
OK, now being back in stateside in mid-May, 13 weeks to go… given a 2 week taper and one pre-race week, that left 10 weeks. I threw in some races, like Alcatraz Aquathlon Challenge (love that swim) and Folsom International Distance triathlon. I couldn’t taper or prep properly for either of them since I needed to add in the bike and run miles - still ended up with 1st in Age Group and 2nd in Age Group respectively in those events. Last 2 weeks of June, another training monkey wrench with a work week in London and following holiday week in France. I had gotten the bike mileage up to 2 ‘long’ rides of 60+ miles and one 105 mile right the day before flying out to London. On the running side, a couple long runs of 18 miles, first one was absolute misery, subsequent ones were better. While in Europe, running was the only option, mostly only had time for 45-75 minutes runs. On the weekend, I did one 13 miler on Saturday followed by my own personal London marathon on Sunday - that was awesome, and an open water swim in Cannes - ridiculous cool as well.
Upon returning from France, there was less than 4 weeks left until Vineman. I had reached my goal of being able to bike 6 hours and run 4 hours, at least once. In the last remaining weeks, I decided that I need to get in a couple more long rides and run and re-start some swimming back to at least 2 times week to redeem some swim fitness lost. I was able to cram all of this in and more - did a couple two-a-days or three-a-day (2+ hours early AM) and then late night (7PM-9PM). The best part about all of these compressed, shorten training schedule is that I was NOT overtrained for this event. 2 weeks out - I felt amazing. Didn’t really even have the taper much, since I was not beat up.
From this point, I’ll segway into the top mistakes I avoided with Ironman Vineman and incorporate my race review as part of this recap. First step in this process is admitting that I did make mistakes in my first Ironman - understanding why I made those mistakes was key to avoiding them. As creatures of habit, even when we tend to ‘know’ something may be wrong, we tend to repeat it if we can not accept the alternate reality or state. I believe my mistakes are because I applied principles and techniques from short-distance triathlon (half-distance and less) which have worked for me and made me really successful in those events.
Top 20 Mistakes to avoid with Ironman
- Being overtrained - back to the above story, all of my work travel which prevented me from months of heavy-load, structured training turned out to be a blessing. I felt really great in the 2 weeks leading up to the race. With the unstructured aspects of my training, I still achieved a peak right around the time of the event.
- In training, focus on your weakness, not your strengths. My biggest regret on my first Ironman was that I could barely run at all. I was spent. I couldn’t get my heart-rate up so I resorted to jogging in between aid stations and walking the length of each aid station - which really kills your overall pace. Reflecting back on my run training back then, I didn’t do enough standalone long runs. My daily run miles rarely exceed 13 miles. While I had run volume and frequency back in 2011, I missed out from having the long runs - the ones that really press your legs and your cardio system to sustain running 2.5+ hours. This is why I set my ability to be able to run for 4 hours as a training goal for this time. To make things exciting, I complete this 4 hour training run while in London.
- Picking a race with conditions that you don’t like. I’m a Northern California gal at heart. It makes total sense to me to race an Ironman on my home turf. Why race anywhere else? :-) I don’t enjoy heat nor humidity. I love temperatures in the 60s and early morning overcast, which is typical of many California races. Ironman St. George had elevation and heat - two elements which I don’t prefer. This isn’t to say that you can or should only do races with ‘ideal’ conditions - just saying if you want to optimize your probability of success, it is a factor for consideration.
- Changing your running shoes before the race. Everyone knows this is a rule in triathlon - never try something new for a race. Back before Ironman St. George in 2011, I had won some Pearl Izumi race running shoes at a local race. Since I had been experiencing plantar fasciitis, I thought I would try the new ones. I also decided to try some Superfeet insoles. Making both of these changes 2 weeks out from my race was a bad idea. In retrospect, I believe the shoes were actually a half-size too small. The insoles gave me blisters. Following Ironman St. George, I lost 5 toenails and had multiple blisters. Since January 2015, I have been using Brooks running shoes: Ghost 8 for training, Launch 2.0 for racing, which is a little lighter, with custom Shoedog insoles from Road Runner - which I LOVE - completely eliminated the plantar fasciitis which I used to get back in 2011. For Ironman Vineman, I knew that I would want to race in the racing shoe, however - the longest run race I have done with that shoe was the Kaiser Half Marathon in February 2016. To test these shoes for Ironman, I wore them for a 20 mile run in San Francisco on hilly terrain. Shoes felt great although I got blisters in the back of each foot. To prevent this in Ironman, I placed waterproof band-aids in the area. I had extra bandaids in both my bike and run transition bags and special needs bags as well. The original bandaids stayed on the whole race and I had no blisters, not a single one, and no messed up toes nor missing toenails. My feet actually feel great after Ironman Vineman. I seriously didn’t think that was possible.
- Too much or wrong activities in the days leading up to the race. With all of the pre-race day activities with bike check-in, run gear check-in, athlete check-in, athlete meetings, expo shopping - it’s easy to get consumed in running around all day and being on your feet. I remember feeling pretty tired for all of this at my first Ironman. You need to find a balance between enjoying the excitement of the event and preserving energy. For this one, I woke up at 6:30AM. I did a short and fairly easy ride for about 40 minutes, following by an easy 5K run. I felt amazingly great on the run, which gave me a lot of confidence. I remember feeling very tired on my pre-day St. George Ironman run. We did the IronKids race at 9AM, followed by some time on the rental house. We made our way to the Russian River for bike drop-off. I did a quick 20 minute swim in my speedskin vs wetsuit followed by some playtime at the beach. Then back to the house for the rest of the afternoon and evening to chill.
- Not hydrating and eating enough the day before the race. This should be a no-brainer though it’s easy to forget to hydrate when you are not doing strenuous exercise and are busy with pre-race day prep. With respect to the food, I made sure to consistently eat balanced carb/protein/fat items throughout the day. While the concept of pure ‘carbo-loading’ with a bowl of pasta the night before has been debunked, you still want to have full glycogen stores.
- Overeating on race morning. For all of my sprint, olympics and long course races, I have followed the same pre-race food plan. One 24 oz of Cytomax and Bonk Bar about 30 minutes after waking up while driving to the venue. One 16-24 oz bottle of water while setting up in transition. One Gu gel 30 minutes prior to race start. If the race is going to be excessively hot (over 80 for me), then I try to get in another 16oz of water or electrolytes. For my first Ironman, since it was going to be such a long day, I didn’t follow my standard food plan - I ate way more and felt an upset stomach after the swim. For Vineman, I decided against eating more than the normal for me. It worked perfectly and I felt great after the Vineman swim.
- Not following your normal warm-up routine. For all of my sprint, olympics and long course races, I always do a run warm-up for about 1 mile, throwing in some run drills. For St. George Ironman, I didn’t do this warm-up since it was going to be such a long day. In retrospect, I think that was a poor choice for me because the warm-up serves to raise up your heart rate so that it’s not raised up too high right at the race start. For Vineman, I had plenty of time after final setup of my bike to leave the transition area and do a run warm-up on the streets in the darkness of 5:30AM. I was back in T1 around 5:45AM as the sun began to rise and we exited T1 around 6:15AM to watch the pro swim start.
- Barefeet in a rocky swim start waiting area. A trick i learned awhile back - wear a pair of throw-away flip flops to swim start. There were really sharp rocks down on the bank of the river. I wore my throw-away flip flops while we lined up and waited in the self-seeded swim start line. Several racers commented to me that their feet were killing them from standing on the rocks. For a shorter race, I would say suck it up buttercup. For an Ironman race though, who wants to start with stabbing feet from rocks. Protect your feet and get some $2 flip flops which you can toss before starting the swim. On that note, this swim start was awesome - loved the rolling start. No flying arms and legs from men, no violent goggle knocking. There was barely any contact for me the entire swim.
- Unfamiliar with the swim course - know your swim buoy count. I was actually shocked how easy the swim was for me. I’ve definitely had harder master swim practices from Coach Kevin. I remember during the St. George Ironman swim, it felt like it kept going forever. I didn’t know how many buoys were out on the course and the placement of the buoys. For Vineman, I knew the number of swim buoys and because the course is a relatively straight out and back through the river, the buoys are actually numbered with big numbers. This is great. I wish more races took this approach. In terms of this race, I had a great swim - very relaxed. At one point, I was wondering if I could come in under the 1 hour mark. I could have pushed it more to achieve that - decided to play it safe considering how long the rest of the day was going to be.
- Foggy goggles. Want to know how to guarantee not having fogged up goggles during an open water swim…. use brand new ones every time. Yes, I mean it. I have tried many anti-fog products out there, including spit. Nothing is as safe as buying a brand new pair of goggle - the same kind you always use. Adjust the strap to the exact distance which you have on your current pair. Don’t use them until swim warm-up. You will be all set. It’s also important to be mindful about the tint of the googles. In most early morning swim starts in California, conditions are overcast so you do not want a dark, mirrored tinted goggle. I also carry both a clear and tinted pair of goggles in my tri-bag and make the decision on which to use on race morning.
- Carrying too much fluid/bottles on the bike. A couple weeks ago, I had a flat tire on mile 5 of a planned 56 mile team bike ride down in Santa Cruz. After pinch flatting the spare, I decided to regroup and conduct a long ride on the following day. My aero water bottle was filled so I left it on the bike for use on the next day’s ride. When I picked up my bike with the filled aero water bottle, I was amazing how much heavier my bike became with the water. It registered for me at this that adding more bottles of water off the back cage would only increase the total weight which I need to push via my power output for the bike leg of the race. It’s very common for folks doing Ironman to go out with 3 filled liquid bottles. With aid stations typically 10 miles apart on an Ironman bike leg, this amount of filled bottles is unnecessary. You are forcing yourself to carry a lot of extra weight - same as carrying extra fat pounds on your body. This extra weight equates to extra energy, aka power, which you have to expend to propel the bike forward. On the Vineman bike course, I was able to pick up Gatorade bottles at the aid stations. I also grabbed water bottles and took quick drinks of water and splashed my arm coolers before tossing the water bottle within the aid station zone. There was only point point around mile 75ish that I ran out of liquid electrotypes. Since it was on the second loop, I knew there was an aid station before Chalk hill so I am fine for the 5 miles. I truly believe that minimize the weight on the bike allowed me to maintain a 19mph.9 AVERAGE pace with an AVERAGE heart rate of only 140 and AVERAGE power of 148 watts. I kept thinking I was going to fall apart on the bike, especially around mile 80 and it didn’t happen. I was really strong. Two of my Silicon Valley Triathlon Club training long bike rides had been much harder than this ride. I knew I was in great condition for the run.
- Bare foot dismount from the bike. On short distance triathlons, I always start with my my bike shoes clipped-in. While I haven’t mastered a true flying mount, I get on and I can do the rolling dismount leaving the shoes clipped-in. For Ironman St. George, I did both the mount and dismount in this fashion. The mount was fine. For the dismount, I didn’t care into account that the black pavement would be burning, considering it was mid-afternoon with temperature in the 90’s. With short distance triathlons, pavement is never hot by early AM. With St. George, I remember my feet were burning all of the way from bike dismount, getting my run transition bag and into the changing tent. For this race, they did not allow clipped-in shoes in transition - which was better in general to avoid any attempts at flying mounts up the hill to exit T1. I opted to run up the short hill with my cleats since that approach has always served me well in the past races here. For dismount, I kept those bike shoes on, unclipped and made my way to the changing tent. No drama, no burning feets.
- Racing through transition. Connecting to above, in the short distance triathlons, I am always executing as fast as possible, especially through the transitions. At my first Ironman, I raced through the transition even though my total time was going to land at over 14 hours. For this race, I vowed to take my time through transition. No running, no racing, very casual and chill. The position aspect to this approach was that I had time to eat in T1 - had my Bonk Breaker bar because I was starving after the swim. In T2, I sat for a little bit to get my sneakers on and run stuff situated. When I started off the run, I was surprised that my legs didn’t actually feel awful, like jello, which is typically on most short distance triathlon. I believe the sitting and resting for a bit allowed the legs to transition more smoothly, making the run first much more pleasant than I had expected.
- Not using enough sunscreen and anti-chaffing cream. Related to racing through transitions, in my first Ironman, I did not reapply sunscreen and anti-chaffing cream, which completely wrecked my skin. I had a semi-permanent sunburn on my back for years to follow. This time, I re-applied anti-chaffing cream and triglide at both T1 and T2. I allowed allowed time to have the volunteers put more sunscreen on me in both location. While these items may be minor on a short distance race, during an Ironman, any discomfort is magnified and prolonged… for hours! Spending a couple minutes to ensure proper skin care and protection is well-worth the investment.
- Having too many screens with your favorite data fields on your devices. This is always a challenge for those of us who are technologists and love tracking workouts with gadgets. There is an aspect of wanting to have access to various data fields and being challenged by the number of allowable fields per screen. On my Garmin 510 bike computer, there are 10 field options. On my Garmin 910XT watch, there are 4. In the past, I had tried to configure screen 1 and screen 2 with all of the fields I would like to view, assuming I would flip between the screens. In practice, it is never practical to be flipping around during a race. Adrenaline is pumping and I find it too chaotic to be flipping around between screens. For Vineman, on the bike computer, I select the following ten fields: Speed, Average Speed. Distance, Cadence, Power 3 second avg, Average Power, Time. Heart Rate, Average Rate and Grade %. On my run watch, I have Pace, Average Pace, Time and Distance. On my run watch, I use the Low Cadence alert to remind me to stay above 176. While I debated disabling this alert for the Ironman marathon (thinking that it would just annoy me because my legs would be too tired to turn over fast), I am glad that I kept it on. It served to remind me to keep
- Going out too fast on the Ironman Marathon run: At my first Ironman, I started the run and was immediately exhausted and had to settle into a walk/jog mode - which landed me with a 6:30 hour time. For this Ironman, I was determine to run the whole marathon, even if that meant keeping it at a slower pace. Given that my swim and bike were relatively easy, I felt very confident going into the run. I was still very cautious about starting out too fast. The run was 3 loops, each around 8.5 miles. I made it the first 9 miles without walking at any of the aid stations. After that point, I did some walking to drink the gatorade and extra water. While the walking at the aid stations definitely contributed to the increase in overall average pace, I preferred to take this approach. The run wasn’t as miserable as I had anticipated and it was 1000% times better than my previous Ironman run. I realized that I would be finishing during the daylight, which was cool. With about 2 miles left, I asked a spectator what was the clock time. She said 6:30PM. Our pro swim start had been at 6:25AM. Age groupers started at 6:45AM. I estimated that I entered the water around 6:50AM. It occurred to me at that moment that it would be possible for me to complete this Ironman in under 12 hours. I never thought that time would be time for me. It was extra motivational to pick up the pace and get to the finish line.
- Not getting massage and stretching, both before and after Ironman. Massage is key for sports performance and recovery. Leading up to my first Ironman, I didn’t get any massage. For this race, I had a sports massage on the Sunday night before, after my last training weekend. I had another massage on Wednesday night prior to the Saturday race date. Following the race, I had a massage Sunday afternoon. I took Sunday and Monday off as recovery. By Tuesday, I was able to do 6AM Master Swim and run Wednesday evening followed by another massage. I was surprised at how quickly I recovered.
- Not having enough food and hydration following the race. Along with above, the key to rapid recovery is post-race nutrition. Within 30 minutes following strenuous exercise, the muscles' ability to replenish glycogen stores start to diminish. After 45 minutes, the window is gone. Immediately following this Ironman, I had some pizza, water, soda and recovery drinks. Within 90 minutes, we went to Starbucks and dinner, where I ate half a pizza, veggie burger and french fries. I continue to eat bars, trail mix and peanut butter sandwich until going to bed around 1:30AM. Food is fuel and after doing Ironman, it is fun to eat and enjoy it!
- Not buying Finisher Gear - At my first Ironman, I didn’t realize there was this concept of ‘Finisher Gear,’ which is apparel branded with the label ‘Finisher’ and the year and title of the Ironman event. I believe in the past, the ‘Finisher’ gear would only come out in the Expo on the day after the race. At Vineman this year, the ‘Finisher’ gear was in the Expo from Day 1. Although it does fringe on breaking some race superstition with buying Finisher gear prior to actually completing the event, I knew that apparel in women’s size small tends to run out quickly. I bought 2 jackets, cycling jersey and tri top and bottoms among a couple of other items. Be prepared to drop some $$$ at the Expo. :-)
Wow - that’s a lot of advise. Thanks for reading. Feel free to ping me with any questions. :-) And here's the summary of how 2016 Ironman Vineman ended up for me.